Sarah is a believer in whole body health. She treats everything from bellowing bellies, maddened muscles, and nervy nervous systems to help attain a body-wide wellness.
Would you let a stranger rub your belly?
What about a trained professional? In my role as a registered massage therapist I can ease muscle pain, mobilize joints, assist fluid flow, mobilise connective tissue, and yes, I am trained and qualified to provide abdominal massage.
The belly is not an area that many people think about getting massaged, though there are numerous benefits: relieving abdominal and hip flexor muscles of tension and symptoms that can arise from trigger points, facilitating digestion, and promoting sleep, for example.
You have four layers of abdominal muscles:
the rectus abdominus (six pack muscle)
the external obliques
the internal obliques
the transverse abdominus
These muscles flex and rotate the torso, provide core and postural stability, and contain the abdominal contents. Even people who don’t actively exercise their abdominal muscles can have overly high tone due to the muscles’ multiple roles.
Overly high toned muscles are susceptible to developing trigger points (commonly known as knots). Trigger points can create both local and referred pain in predictable patterns. Abdominal muscle trigger points can refer pain into the ribcage, abdomen, hips, groin, and even the back. These trigger points can also cause viscerosomatic symptoms, which means they can cause symptoms in other parts of the body and its organs. These symptoms include bloating, heartburn, nausea, diarrhea, feelings of abdominal or urinary fullness, and dysmenorrhea (pain associated with the menstrual cycle).
Pain in these areas and these signs and symptoms may be alleviated by massage therapy.
Another muscle that is accessed through the abdominal area is called the iliopsoas. It is the strongest hip flexor of the body and can refer pain to the low back and front of the thigh. It is commonly high toned on people who do activities that involve a lot of hip flexion, such as runners. It is also often short and high toned on people who sit a lot, such as desk workers. Often times people who do not find total relief for low back pain from back massage find that treatment of the iliopsoas is key to decreasing their pain.
Massage therapy of the abdominal region is also very effective for facilitating digestion. Massage therapists are knowledgeable in digestive organ anatomy and are trained to massage along the colon. Massage here is used to bring blood flow to the area, physically move digestive contents and gas, and stimulate peristalsis, the muscle contractions that move food along the digestive tract. This is especially useful for people who have a slow, sluggish digestive system, experience gas or bloating, or have constipation.
If you are experiencing bloating or gas, you may be concerned that the massage will cause you to pass wind. This may happen! Your massage therapist is quite accustomed to the noises and odours the human body makes, and will reassure you that this is perfectly normal.
Massage of the abdomen also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), known as the “rest and digest” system. When one of these functions is stimulated, in this case digestion, it in turn stimulates the remaining components of the PSNS. This is one reason it is thought that abdominal massage may also help people sleep and may alleviate insomnia.
The digestive tract contains a huge network of millions of neurons, known as the enteric nervous system, or the ‘second brain’. There are more neurons found along the digestive tract than in the human spinal cord, and about as many as in the brain of a cat. These neurons produce and store most of the body’s serotonin and about half of its dopamine. These are neurotransmitters involved in mood, happiness, pleasure, and the reward system, disorders of which are linked to depression and anxiety. Massage therapy is already known to help alleviate stress, depression and anxiety, and abdominal massage may help to soothe the enteric nervous system, furthering those effects.
There are some people who should not receive abdominal massage. People with irritable bowel syndrome should not receive abdominal massage if they are having symptoms of diarrhea, though they can receive it at other times. In fact anyone experiencing diarrhea should not have abdominal massage. People with inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis) also should not receive abdominal massage.
Your registered massage therapist will have a conversation with you before treatment to negotiate the parameters concerning abdominal massage, including how much of the treatment time will be spent on it, how to drape for modesty and comfort (usually a towel in placed over the chest for women), pressure, and what goals to focus on. As with any type of massage, the treatment can be stopped or altered if it is uncomfortable for you.
Some people will feel uncomfortable having their belly exposed because they worry about what it looks like, or they feel vulnerable with it uncovered. Again, your massage therapist has seen many bellies during their career, and in fact they have their own belly so they understand your concerns – they will always be happy to keep your belly covered and to massage through the sheet if you prefer.
Please let your massage therapist know if you would like to talk more about abdominal massage, or if you’d like to try it on your next visit!
Original drawings by Sarah Million. Photos courtesy of Body Poets archives.